Fighting the Holy Wars

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Fighting the Holy Wars

The First Hurrah
…9 Unforeseen Consequences
…21 The Gentle Art of Diplomacy
…33 The Final Good-Bye

The Crusades began in 1095 and raged, on and off, for the next two hundred years. During these centuries, the western Christian world pitted itself against what it thought of as the infidel, or the unbelievers, in the Middle East. In particular, Crusaders, (those who had "taken the cross," as this fighting for Christianity was called at the time), were battling for reoccupation of the shrines and sites holy to Christians in Palestine: Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. These locations along a narrow strip of the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, sacred not only to Christians but also to Jews and members of the Islamic faith, had been contested for centuries. Although Muslims (believers in Islam and the words of the prophet Muhammad) had occupied Jerusalem since the seventh century, they had generally recognized the rights of those of other religions to have free access to the city. Thus Muslims, Christians, and Jews had lived in relative harmony in Jerusalem. A wrinkle was thrown into this balancing act in the eleventh century with the arrival of a new power in the Middle East: the Seljuk Turks.

This nomadic, warrior-like tribe of Turks from Central Asia had made its way into Anatolia and Asia Minor by the eleventh century, converted to Islam, and become fanatical, or extremist, defenders of that religion. Where before there was compromise between the Christian and Muslim inhabitants of the region, now, with the sudden power swing toward the Seljuks, intolerance was on the rise. The Seljuk Turks threatened the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) in Asia Minor, defeating the emperor's troops at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Invited into one of the major centers of Islamic civilization, Baghdad, as "protectors" of the faith, the Seljuks proceeded to sweep west and south through Syria and into Palestine, ultimately occupying Jerusalem itself in 1071. No longer were Christians allowed to visit the sites found there that were connected with the birth and early life of Jesus Christ; even the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb of Christ, was off limits to Christian pilgrims, or religious visitors.

These events did not go unnoticed in the West. As early as 1094 or 1095 the basileus, (emperor of the Byzantine Empire) Alexius I Comnenus, wrote to Pope Urban II, the head of the Christian church in Europe, asking for help against the Turks. Urban II took this cry for assistance to heart for several reasons. For Urban II it was important on religious grounds that Christians have access to the sites in the Holy Land, a region then known as Palestine. He also wanted to restore good relations between the two branches of Christianity: the Roman Catholic Church based in Europe, and the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. These two branches had been quarreling for centuries and had lately come to new lows in their relations. Another consideration for Urban II was the situation in Europe itself, a continent torn apart by small wars between minor nobles and professional soldiers (knights) who had, it seemed, too much time on their hands. Many of these nobles had older brothers who were going to inherit the lands of their fathers, leaving the younger siblings without resources. In other words, Europe was full of underemployed soldiers eager for a fight and for new opportunities. Urban II wanted to ship these aggressive knights abroad and use their skills to fight for Christianity. These knights would then carve out Crusader kingdoms for themselves in the Holy Land.

In 1095, at the religious conference called the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II called for a holy war, a Crusade (from the Latin word for "cross") to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims. He spoke of harsh treatment of Christians at the hands of the Muslims. Whether or not such tales were true, they did convince those gathered to hear the pope that such a war was necessary. At the end of his passionate speech, the nobles in the audience shouted out, "Deus volt!," Latin for "God wills it." This became the battle cry of Crusaders in the Holy Land.

Although the primary motivation for the Crusades was religious, there were other factors involved. Historian Karen Armstrong noted the variety of motivations in her Crusades history, Holy War:

The Crusades, like so much of the modern conflict, were not wholly rational movements that could be explained away by purely economic or territorial ambition or by the clash of rights and interests. They were fueled, on all sides, by myths and passions that were far more effective in getting people to act than any purely political motivation. The medieval holy wars in the Middle East could not be solved by rational treatises [discussions] or neat territorial solutions. Fundamental [basic] passions were involved which touched the identity of Christians, Muslims and Jews and which were sacred to the identity of each. They have not changed very much in the holy wars of today.

From 1095 to the end of the thirteenth century there were seven major Crusades, perhaps more or fewer, depending on which historian is consulted. There were also numerous smaller expeditions from time to time during these two hundred years. Some were sponsored by the papacy (the office of the pope); others by kings or emperors; and still others, such as the ill-fated People's Crusade (1096) and the Children's Crusade (1212), by common people who were filled with religious enthusiasm. Though the First Crusade (1095–99) succeeded in winning back Jerusalem for the West, most Crusades ended in disaster from the Christian point of view. The First Crusade was led by nobles, such as Godfrey of Bouillon and his brother, Baldwin, along with Count Raymond of Toulouse, Count Stephen of Blois, and the Norman prince from southern Italy, Bohemund, and succeeded in capturing a strip of land along the eastern Mediterranean from Antioch in the north to Jerusalem in the south. This conquered territory was called the Latin Kingdom, and its center was in Jerusalem for as long as that city stayed in Crusader hands. The Crusader states, consisting of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Principality of Antioch, County of Tripoli, and County of Edessa, lasted until 1291 with the fall of the city of Acre.

During those years there was a constant struggle between the Christian Crusaders of this Latin Kingdom, or Outremer (literally "beyond the sea" in Latin), as it was called in Europe, and the Muslims who surrounded them. The Crusaders built fortresses, birthed dynasties, and founded fighting religious orders, such as the Knights Templar and Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights, which together formed the elite corps of troops protecting Outremer from invasion. Meanwhile, the Muslims, who included ethnic Arabs, Turks, and Egyptians, occasionally produced great leaders to rally the Islamic world and overcome their own internal rivalries in order to concentrate on fighting the European invaders. The idea of jihad, or holy war, became a unifying principle for Islam just as it had for Christians. Under leaders such as the Turkish Zengi and his son, Nur al-Din in the early to mid-twelfth century; the great Kurdish military strategist Saladin in the late twelfth century; and the Mamluk, or slave, leaders of Egypt Baybars and Kalavun in the thirteenth century, the Muslims managed to push the Crusaders into an ever-smaller pocket next to the Mediterranean until finally driving the Europeans out of the Middle East in 1291.

The West sent inspired leaders as well. Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband, Louis VII of France, followed the call of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux to fight, unsuccessfully, the rising power of Islam during the Second Crusade (1147–49). Similarly, Richard the Lionheart of England and Philip Augustus of France fought in the Third Crusade (1189–91) after Saladin recaptured Jerusalem for Islam. The Fourth Crusade (1202–04) was perhaps one of the most disastrous from a western point of view, for the Crusaders never reached the Holy Land. Instead, they were drawn into rivalries over the succession to the throne of the Byzantine Empire and destroyed Constantinople in 1204. This resulted in the establishment of a Latin Kingdom in Asia Minor that lasted for more than half a century and further worsened relationships between the eastern and western churches. Egypt was the center of the Fifth Crusade (1218–21), and once again the Christian forces were unsuccessful in dislodging the Muslims from Jerusalem. This was accomplished, for a time, by the peaceful means of diplomacy (international relations) between Frederick II, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (known also as the German Kingdom) and the sultan, or ruler, of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil. Yet only fifteen years later the Turkish Muslims once again seized Jerusalem, setting off the Seventh Crusade (1248–54), led by France's Louis IX. Once more the Crusaders tried to reach Jerusalem via Egypt, and once more they were defeated by the sultan's forces. Louis IX was captured and forced to pay a heavy price for his release. Some historians acknowledge an Eighth Crusade (1270), when Louis IX once again took up the cross and tried for a back-door entrance to Jerusalem via the North African desert, where he, his son, and thousands of Crusaders died of fever, ending the Crusade before it had really begun.

The Crusades changed the world in major ways, both good and bad. On the plus side, there was a meeting of cultures in the Middle East. Christian knights and Crusaders brought back Arab scholarship, customs, and artistic influences, thus putting Europe in touch with a rich cultural tradition. This cultural contact, in turn, helped bring about the flowering of European culture during the Renaissance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Commerce also increased between these two parts of the world, leading to increased standards of living on both sides. Additionally, the power of kings and secular (nonreligious) leaders grew during this period, while the power of the church and the pope declined. This was a direct result of the fact that such secular leaders were in charge of the crusading enterprises, even though the pope many times had called for them to be organized. This new balance of power between church and state eventually led to the modern nation-state. On the downside, the idea of international war against the enemies of Christianity or the established church became a part of European thinking. This attitude fueled wars during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Worst of all, relations between Christians and Muslims were poisoned for centuries, a consequence the modern world is still living with.

The great events of these Crusades—the battles, treaties, and infighting—were recorded by historians, clergy, and fighting men and women on all sides. In the beginning section of this chapter, "The First Hurrah," the focus is the First Crusade, perhaps the only successful such mission to the Holy Land. Portions of The Alexiad, a biography of Byzantine Emperor Alexius I written by his daughter Anna, and a Crusader letter written by one of the leaders of the First Crusade, from Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, provide the human side of this holy war from the perspectives of the Byzantines and of the invading Christians. The second section, "Unforeseen Consequences," offers two instances of tragic results of the Crusades, with excerpts from Chronicles of the Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople, written by a French participant in that Crusade, and from The Crusades: A Documentary History. The third section, "The Gentle Art of Diplomacy," offers two interpretations of the treaty won by Frederick II during the Sixth Crusade, with excerpts from Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History and from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The last section of this chapter, "The Final Good-Bye," tells two episodes in the final act of the Crusaders in the Middle East: the taking of Jerusalem by Turkish Muslim warriors in 1244, described in a letter from the leader of the Knights Hospitallers who fought there, and the fall of Acre in 1291, with an excerpt from the Description of the Holy Land and of the Way Thither by a fourteenth-century visitor to Jerusalem, Ludolph of Suchem.